What You Should Know About Steroids
June 2, 2004, KidsHealth.org
For the past few years, it's been all over the news - stories about athletes, steroids, and body image. In 1998, there was plenty of talk about home-run king Mark McGwire and his controversial use of androstenedione (which he has since stopped using). Professional wrestlers are much admired by kids and teens for their bulked-up appearance and strength. Female athletes are becoming more visible role models for teen girls, who are more aware than ever of a "buffed" muscular body type.
Unfortunately, many professional athletes use various forms of anabolic steroids (illegally, in some sports) and admit that they believe they are bigger and stronger, and perform better, when they do. This undoubtedly influences many teen boys and girls, who think that they too will be bigger, better athletes if they use supplements and steroids. Recent studies indicate that as many as 5% of teen males and 2.5% of teen females are using some form of anabolic or androgenic steroids in the United States.
As a parent, you're probably concerned about the increasing use of steroids by young athletes and you may even be concerned about your own child's health. What do you need to know about steroids and how can you talk to your child about them?
What Are Steroids?
Drugs commonly referred to as "steroids" are classified as anabolic, androgenic, and corticosteroids. Corticosteroids, such as cortisone, are drugs used to control inflammation, and are not the steroids that build muscle and receive so much media attention. Rather, it is the anabolic steroids that are used by athletes and bodybuilders to bulk up and improve athletic performance.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic hormones that cause the body to produce muscle and prevent muscle breakdown. (The word "anabolic" is derived from a Greek word that means to "build up.") Some athletes take steroids in the hopes that they will improve their ability to run faster, hit farther, lift heavier weights, jump higher, or have more endurance. You should be aware that anabolic steroids are a drug like any other. In the United States, it is against the law to use anabolic steroids without a prescription.
Androstenedione, or "andro," is a weaker anabolic androgenic steroid, and, like other anabolic steroids, it is taken by athletes who want to build muscle. It has been suggested in some recent studies that if andro is taken in very large daily doses, it can significantly increase levels of testosterone and muscle proteins that would be extremely harmful to every body system.
How Do Anabolic Steroids Work?
The human body produces many forms of steroids naturally. Anabolic steroids are drugs that resemble the chemical structure of the body's natural sex hormone testosterone. Androstenedione is a steroid hormone that can be broken down into testosterone. Testosterone is naturally made by the bodies of males and, in much smaller amounts, females. The hormone directs the body to produce or add male characteristics such as increased muscle mass, facial hair, and deep voices, and is an important part of male development during puberty.
When athletes take anabolic steroids, these drugs stimulate the muscle tissue in their bodies to grow larger and stronger, exaggerating the effects of testosterone on the body. The effects of too much testosterone ciculating in the body is harmful over time.
Dangers of Anabolic Steroids
Steroids are dangerous for two reasons: they are illegal, and they can damage a person's health, especially if used in large doses over time.
Although they may build muscle, steroids can produce very serious side effects in both males and females. Using steroids for a long time can negatively affect the reproductive systems. In males, steroids can reduce the amount of sperm produced in the testicles and even reduce the size of the testicles. Steroids also can cause impotence in males.
Females who use steroids may have problems with their menstrual cycles because steroids can disrupt the maturation and release of eggs from the ovaries. This disruption can cause long-term problems with fertility.
Steroids taken for an extended period of time can also:
o stunt growth in teens by causing the growth plates in the bones to mature too fast and fuse
o cause irreversible liver damage
o enlarge the heart muscles
o cause violent, aggressive mood swings
o contribute to heart disease and increase cholesterol and lipid levels
o increase breast growth in males, especially teens
o create irreversible stretch marks
o heighten a person's tendency to lose hair
o cause muscles to ache
In addition to these, teen girls and women risk additional side effects:
o permanent effects of male hair growth or male-pattern baldness
deepening of the voice
o enlargement of the clitoris
The health problems caused by steroids may not appear for years after the steroids are taken. The risk of steroids causing bones to fuse early and preventing a teen from reaching full growth potential is significant - and at an all-time high. The National Institutes of Drug Abuse estimates in recent studies that 325,000 teenage boys and 175,000 teenage girls are using steroids.
"A testosterone measurement of more than 200 nanograms per milliliter would signal steroid abuse, and I have seen athletes with levels in the thousands," says Larry Bowers, MD, a steroid expert. "Although it may take 20 years, case studies of long-term steroid use indicate negative effects on almost every system of the body."
In addition to the health risks, steroids are illegal. Drug testing for all athletes has become more prevalent, and athletes who fail a drug test for steroids can face numerous legal consequences: jail time, monetary fines, exclusion from an event or from the team, or seizure of trophies or medals.
Although the health problems associated with steroid use are well documented, it's important to remember that the rules about the legal use of steroids can be confusing. Even professional athletes don't always agree on the issue. For instance, when Mark McGwire freely admitted that he used androstenedione on the way to setting baseball's single-season home run record, he wasn't kicked out of the league or stripped of his achievement. That's because the use of andro - what some people in sports still consider a dietary supplement, although it is proven to be a form of anabolic steroid - is still permitted in Major League Baseball and National League Hockey. But andro is banned in other sports organizations. The International Olympic Committee, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and most high school athletic associations currently ban the use of androstenedione.
Andro is banned as an illegal substance in Canada, but in the United States can be easily obtained as a dietary supplement.
Talking to Your Kid About Steroids
It's important to understand the pressures that may drive young athletes to experiment with steroids. Although most athletes exercise hard, eat properly, and take care of their bodies to maintain optimal fitness and performance levels, athletic competition and the desire to look physically toned and fit can be fierce.
To help your child handle these pressures, you should talk to him about healthy competition and drugs. Ask your child what his concerns are and what are his coach's and team members' attitudes toward steroids. You should also encourage your child to prepare mentally and physically for competition by eating well and getting enough rest.
If you suspect your child is using steroids, watch for these warning signs:
o exaggerated mood swings
o worsening acne
o unusually greasy skin with stretch marks
o a sudden increase in muscle size
If you have strong suspicions that your child is using these drugs, you should call your child's doctor. He or she may recommend that you have your child take a simple urine test at the doctor's office to detect the presence of steroids.
And if your child is using steroids, what should you do? There's no easy answer.
"Unless young people are taught to know where and how to draw the line, to know that it's not right to try to win at all costs, they're not going to listen when you tell them steroids put their lives at risk for the glory of winning," says Charles E. Yesalis, MD, a steroid expert and editor of Anabolic Steroids in Sports and Exercise.
It may help you to consider your child's desires to look fit and perform well. Understand that these desires can be very strong and that to forbid the use of steroids may not be enough to help him quit. You should schedule an appointment with his doctor so that he can learn healthy ways (through diet and exercise) to boost performance and physical appearance.
Steroids may give your child the sense that he or she is stronger and more athletic, but the consequences are too dangerous to risk. The chance that your teen's growth and long-term health could be jeopardized by steroids is especially worrisome. Help your child stay away from steroids by encouraging a healthy lifestyle that is followed by your entire family. And be sure to promote your child's self-esteem so that body image doesn't take over your child's self-worth.